12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.
The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.
After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.
Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.
Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.
Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.
Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.
12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.
12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.